A to Zim: photographer puts a chunk of home on the map

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A to Zim: photographer puts a chunk of home on the map

Lensman is filling in the gaps left by Google Street View, and bringing a boost to African economies in the process

Sharon Mazingaizo
An aerial image of Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe taken for Google Street View by Tawanda Kanhema.
DROPPING A STONEWALL IN A WELL An aerial image of Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe taken for Google Street View by Tawanda Kanhema.
Image: Tawanda Kanhema

After discovering that his hometown of Harare was absent from Google Street View, one man from Zimbabwe decided to correct that.

Tawanda Kanhema, 39, a digital strategist and photographer working in Silicon Valley, moved  from Zimbabwe to the US in 2009,  and his background in journalism and documentary film-making led him to create a visual tour of Zimbabwe on Google Street View.

In 2018, Kanhema did a two-week mapping trip back to Zimbabwe, shooting sights and interesting places as a way to correct the digital divide between Zimbabwe and major Western cities. He told Times Select he was struck by the gap in the accessibility and quality of digital products and services that were taken for granted in larger Western cities.

“I wanted to play a small part in bridging that divide, and closing the gaps that exist in many parts of the region. My goal going into this wasn’t to do anything beyond map a few main streets and attractions, and even after covering nearly 2,000 miles, I didn’t think anyone would notice. Now more than 20 million people have seen these images, and it’s just humbling to see how far such a small contribution can go towards improving our sense of representation on these platforms,” said Kanhema.

My goal going into this wasn’t to do anything beyond map a few main streets and attractions ... I didn’t think anyone would notice. Now, more than 20 million people have seen these images.

Kanhema personally funded all production costs – about US$5,000 – to travel across Zimbabwe for the project, and he volunteered to carry Google’s Street View gear to map what amounted to more than 3,000km of Zimbabwe. He covered the capital’s central business districts, a virtual tour of Victoria Falls, Great Zimbabwe ruins and the Eastern Highlands.

“I was experiencing the country and its attractions through the lens, and it was an incredible experience to be able to document those places and bring those images to a platform where millions of people can have instant access for trip planning, education, environmental research and other applications,” he says.

The process of mapping points of interest in Zimbabwe took Kanhema 14 days on the ground and was the culmination of nearly two years of planning and testing different cameras, software and mapping kits. Kanhema believes that beyond daily navigation, tourism and entertainment, maps play a critical role as a tool for researchers, investors and city planners. And he hopes his images will draw tourists to the region and boost Zimbabwe’s economy.

“When entire cities, countries and regions are left out, there are multiple effects of that exclusion that can have a negative economic impact internally within the respective countries as well as globally. I think we should be working to address this at a local and regional level, thinking about ways we can build out the digital infrastructure, products and services that help improve outcomes in health, education, the environment and our economies overall,” Kanhema told Times Select.

Kanhema says his favourite part of the project was mapping Victoria Falls. “Being at Victoria Falls was surreal. No matter how many times I visit the Falls, there’s an overwhelming sense of wonder that comes with standing at the edge of that gorge and feeling the spray of the mist on your skin. No image can convey that experience.”

A picture of Sossusvlei in Namibia taken by Tawanda Kanhema for Google Street View.
DESOLATE BEAUTY A picture of Sossusvlei in Namibia taken by Tawanda Kanhema for Google Street View.
Image: Tawanda Kanhema

Kanhema believes there is certainly more work to be done in Zimbabwe and regionally. He is now assisting with a similar initiative in Namibia, where he has done some pilot mapping in Windhoek and on the Atlantic coast.

“There’s a lot of interest in virtual mapping right now, especially for environmental research and monitoring. We’re doing a mapping project at California’s Yosemite National Park to support conservation efforts. I am also working with Dr Mette Bendixen, an arctic and alpine researcher, to plan the mapping of glacial deltas in Greenland in support of scientific research.”